At least 77% of tests carried out on diesel vehicles in Europe have "suspicious" levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, indicating the "probable use" of an engine calibration strategy that is now classified as a device deactivation prohibited, according to recent rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU).
So says a new report from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the non-governmental group that uncovered the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal in 2015.
The report, published on Wednesday, assesses the magnitude of "suspicious" and "extreme" emissions levels shown in post-scandal tests of polluting emissions from diesel cars conducted by government and independent organizations beginning in 2016. Emissions levels they are defined based on the expected behavior of the engine for certain types of tests.
The "extreme" threshold indicates a level of emissions so far above regulatory limits that it is highly unlikely to be due to any cause other than the presence of a defeat device.
Approximately 53 million of these diesel cars were sold in Europe between 2009 and 2019. Most of them are still in operation today and continue to emit high levels of NOx, a hazardous air pollutant that poses a significant risk to human health.
According to the investigation, not only did a vast majority of tests (85% of Euro 5 diesel cars and 77% of Euro 6 cars) show “suspicious” excess emissions, but many contained “extreme” levels of emissions. .
Thus, "extreme" emission levels were detected in at least 40% of official diesel car tests, indicating the "almost certain" presence of a calibration strategy that can now be considered a prohibited defeat device.
The ICCT also evaluated the data collected in previous remote sensing campaigns, which measure the actual emissions of vehicles from the roadside to the path of drivers. The data, consisting of 700,000 measurements in five European countries, showed that 75% of the average emissions of diesel engine families exceeded the "extreme" threshold.
"It is difficult to refute what is a large amount of data analyzed and evidence collected from multiple sources. They all point in the same direction. Following the CJEU rulings, these results present a strong evidence base for authorities to investigate and, potentially, , take corrective action to address the health risks posed by European diesel cars on our roads," said Peter Mock, ICCT Director General for Europe.
A defeat device is a software code installed in the vehicle to alter or disable the emission control system under certain operating conditions. Its use was at the center of the polluting emissions scandal of 2015.
European courts continue to review evidence from related cases. In a ruling published in December 2020, the CJEU clarified the conditions under which defeat devices are prohibited, including for vehicles sold before the rulings.
This court stated that "only immediate risks of harm that create a concrete danger while driving the vehicle can justify the use of a defeat device." The judges broadly limited the scope of the exemptions.
Other CJEU rulings from July 2022 further clarified that defeat devices cannot be justified under any circumstances if they function for most of the year under normal driving conditions.
"The emissions levels found in the tests provide powerful data for estimating the prevalence of prohibited defeat devices. What we found is that vehicles exceeding the 'extreme' threshold should be considered a red flag and should raise questions about the justification of their behavior in terms of emissions. A total of 150 vehicle models have emissions above this threshold, which represents about 13 million vehicles still on the road in the EU-27 and the United Kingdom," said Yoann Bernard, researcher ICCT principal.
The report also analyzes the statements submitted by manufacturers during investigations carried out by national market surveillance in four European countries. From these, the ICCT identified 66 vehicle models using calibration strategies that can now be considered prohibited defeat devices under the latest CJEU rulings because they functioned under normal driving conditions.
Most of these vehicle models (48) used emissions calibration strategies that altered or disabled the emission control system at low ambient temperatures, which are typical in the EU.
A complementary analysis by the ICCT shows that of the 53 million diesel cars sold in the EU (including the UK) between 2009 and 2019, 24 million were models showing "suspicious" emissions in government tests and 16.3 million They turned out to be models displaying "extreme" emissions levels.
The problem of excess NOx emissions is prevalent in all manufacturers. The ICCT estimates that 19.1 million vehicles with "suspicious" emissions and 13 million vehicles with "extreme" emissions are still in use today.
EU law obliges Member States to investigate cases of potential defeat devices and to require manufacturers to take corrective action if a prohibited defeat device is detected. The 2020 CJEU ruling continues to apply in the United Kingdom as current community legislation and, therefore, should inform the interpretation that the British Government makes of the regulations that prohibit the use of deactivation devices.
Since the 2015 diesel emissions scandal, only a few manufacturers have issued recalls and updates to diesel cars in Europe, according to the report. The impact of these updates is unclear, as many vehicles have not been retested or the results of the tests have not been made public.
Air pollution remains the biggest environmental health hazard in Europe. Diesel vehicles are one of the main culprits, largely due to high NOx emissions. In the region, some 35,400 premature deaths were related to emissions from diesel road vehicles in 2015, that is, 14% of all premature deaths related to air pollution.